Japanese literature, and especially by female authors, has certainly been on the rise these past few years, with authors like Yoshimoto Banana (Kitchen), Kawakami Mieko (Breasts and Eggs, Heaven), Ogawa Yoko (The Memory Police), and Murata Sayaka (Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings) to name just a few, becoming more widely popular. While I’ve read and loved the work of these contemporary authors, I’ve always felt there was a lack of slightly older, more classic female Japanese authors being published in English.
Luckily, there are still some books that can start to satisfy my appetite for more obscure (in English at least) and classic Japanese literature by women, and today’s book, Days & Nights by Hayashi Fumiko and translated by J.D. Wisgo is one such example.
Hayashi Fumiko was born in Japan in 1903, published widely and prolifically throughout her life and is considered one of the most important female writers of 20th century Japan. My first contact with Hayashi’s work was through her story ‘The Accordion and the Fish Town’ (tr. Janice Brown) which is included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen, and I’ve been very curious to read more of her work since.
Days & Nights is a collection of 9 short stories, perfect for those who wish to become acquainted with the author’s work. As the translator very aptly mentions in his introduction, the title, ” “Days and Nights” […] alludes to a theme running through many of these works: long term human relationships than span across months, if not years. Often, those whom we spend our days and nights with we would consider family, at least in some form” (p. ii). Indeed, Hayashi’s stories are largely about human relationships and their complex nature, about characters who are flawed human beings and make questionable choices, and about 20th century Japan in all its dreary glory.
A bleak atmosphere permeates most of the stories, as the author perfectly captures the precarious living conditions after the war and the urban working-class life of the time. The second story of the collection, ‘Downfall‘, is definitely the most somber and harrowing one, describing a man’s life right after the war, having lost everything and trying to go through life – it left me with a very heavy feeling on my chest and I am truly amazed at how deftly Hayashi describes these unfortunate moments of one’s life. War and poverty have affected the country as well as its inhabitants, and that is reflected on Hayashi’s characters as they seem to go through life as “in a daze” (p. 85), with “each day [being] like a terrible hangover” (p.20).
Hayashi doesn’t shy away from tackling even feminist themes and sensitive topics or from creating characters that are rife with flaws – illegitimate children, women in extramarital affairs and men that seek a second chance after life has dealt heavy blows on them are only some of the themes and characters that populate Hayashi’s stories.
The author also very skillfully manages to insert musings on life in her stories, such as the following passage from ‘The Tryst‘, a story about a woman who ran away with her lover and is now pregnant with his child, which illuminates the dark side of humans:
“I think that upon seeing a person’s downfall, what can be considered thoughtless misconduct, a surprising number of us would secretly harbor feelings of spiteful delight. For I have seen countless people watching someone suffering in a pit of despair and yet make no effort to toss them a lifeline, only criticize as they please…” (p. 80)
Quite often, the characters in Hayashi’s stories have a deep-rooted desire to escape, to run away and start building a life much better than the one they can imagine themselves in staying at the town or country that they are. ‘Employment‘ is a story about youth and this often inexplicable yearning to get away and make a better life abroad. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to make such a step, and those who are left behind can still harbour sour feelings of disappointment and abandonment. Hayashi manages to express all these complicated feelings so eloquently.
“It wasn’t simply the capriciousness of youth – there was some great surge of emotion compelling his young heart. Rather than stay here in the tiny country that was Japan, clinging to a small chair, he yearned to travel to a distant land and work to his heart’s content.” (p. 60)
Youth is often juxtaposed with old age, as some of the characters in the stories, such as ‘The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern‘, the very first story in the book, are not at their prime yet they still want to make a fresh start and live the rest of their lives in a satisfactory manner (whether they achieve this or not, though, is something to discover while reading the stories). A quote from this story that particularly struck me is the following about the urgent manner things seem to get as one gets older:
“Young people, brimming with self-confidence, haven’t the slightest fear of unfinished business, but once you reach age fifty the unfinished becomes the ultimate source of anxiety, a vacuum bereft of even the slightest value.” (p. 1)
Overall, there is not a single story in this collection I didn’t like, although I did have my favourites of course (‘The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House‘ was my favourite one, as it combined humour, wit and the follies of youth in equal measure). Some stories might be darker than others, but I believe they all perfectly capture the uncertainty and at times dreariness of 20th century Japan. Hayashi’s writing is a real treat and the translation manages to convey the author’s talent quite successfully, too.
I would definitely recommend trying out Hayashi Fumiko’s works if you’re interested in more classic female authors from Japan, or if you simply enjoy reading about the 20th century in your literature. This particular edition also features some notes about the currencies of the time and some details about Hayashi’s life which might prove very illuminating, especially if you’re not very well acquainted with Japanese culture at the time.
Have you read Hayashi Fumiko or any other classic Japanese female writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or recommendations! 🙂
A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Arigatai Books.